Expedition 1: Developing and Using Models

What do you mean, “models?”

In this episode, Charles discusses the scientific practice of developing and using models in science. No…not fashion models, though the concept is similar. While fashion models act as representations of what clothes and cosmetics might look like on the rest of us, models in science are also used to represent certain features of the real world. We use many different types of models in science including graphs, physical replicas, diagrams, pictures, computer simulations, mathematical models, and analogies. It is important to remember that since no model is exactly like the thing that it describes, all models have their merits (things they are good at describing), as well as their limitations (things they aren’t so good at describing).

How are glaciers used as models?

Maybe you’re wondering how a cylinder of ice acts as a model of the climate conditions (temperature and precipitation) of the past? That’s a great question! (Say, that reminds me of the scientific practice from last week’s episode.) Charles and Kit face a challenge in trying to answer their questions about Peru’s climate history, what scientists refer to as “paleoclimate,” meaning “past climate.”

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, no one was writing down the daily weather conditions. The thermometer, as we know it, hadn’t been developed until just before the year 1800! However, Mother Nature has her own ways of recording what occurs on earth. Glaciers preserve records of the types and amounts of gases and dust that were present in the atmosphere, as well as the amounts of annual precipitation.

Thanks to modern technology, we can compare our measurements of the recent past with the glacial records from the same years in order to identify patterns. Scientists have been able to use these data to create models that help “translate” the same types of information gathered from older samples (like the ones Charles and Kit are collecting). When data are collected that the current model can’t explain, scientists work to refine, or improve the model over time to account for new data.

After bringing their ice cores back home to the lab, the team will be able to gather data about the gases and dust that exist in their samples, and use existing models to analyze and interpret the story being told by this ancient ice.

Model improvement

As a final thought, it is important to mention that engineers also use models in their work. Our scientists are benefiting from the work of many different branches of engineering, as every piece of equipment that Charles and Kit use has been engineered to improve upon the model that came before it. Everything from their cold weather gear and ice core drills, to their tent poles and toothbrushes are better than those of the past thanks to materials engineers, design engineers, chemical engineers, and many others.

What do you think?

Here are some questions to discuss with your class, or to investigate on your own!

  • Are ice cores the only way to know about past climate? How do we gather information in places with no ice?
  • What can gas and dust tell us about the climate conditions?
  • That equipment looks pretty fancy! What does it do? How much does it cost?
  • What are examples of other models that are used to explain or predict phenomena in science?
  • What other products/tools/equipment have engineers improved over time? What about things that you use every day?
  • How accurate are the current models describing global climate? Will they ever be perfect?
  • What predictions are being made using the current models of global climate?

Have more questions?

Ask the researchers any time on Twitter!

Don’t miss your chance to tweet with Charles (@UmaineFARRodda) and Kit (@UmaineFARKit) live from Peru each Wednesday at 1:00 PM EST throughout their journey.

Follow the adventure on Twitter (@UMaineFAR)!

Visit the Follow a Researcher® website.